The Punisher (2004) – Directed by Jonathan Hensleigh – Starring Thomas Jane, John Travolta, Will Patton, Roy Scheider, Laura Harring, Ben Foster, Rebecca Romijn, John Pinette, Samantha Mathis, and Kevin Nash.
THE PUNISHER is one of those movies that I enjoy the less I think about it. If I just sit and watch the film, THE PUNISHER is a really solid, really enjoyable action film, but when I start to think about it and pick it apart, the film loses some points with me.
I wonder if, in part, THE PUNISHER serves as something of a Rorschach test about one’s own happiness. When the film came out, I wasn’t all that crazy about it and spent a good amount of time talking about how dumb it was, but now I find I like it quite a bit more than I did back then. Some of this, I think, is a difference in the amount of superhero movies. Now that we’ve gotten all those Avengers’ films, the sheer amount of Marvel movies lessens the burden each individual film has to bear. I would be dishonest, though, if I didn’t acknowledge that I’m a lot happier person now than I was back in 2004. I have a much better sense now of who I am and what I want, and that singular contentment in self means that I’m less reliant on other people to make me happy. If you’re happy with who you are and what your situation is, I think its possible that a movie like THE PUNISHER will allow you to focus more on the positive aspects of the film and less on the negative.
Which isn’t to say I watch THE PUNISHER in some dopey identity cocoon that filters out all of the bad stuff so I can blindly love the good stuff.
The movie takes way, way too long setting up the Punisher’s origin, giving us an elaborate and elongated back and forth that sets up the feud between Frank Castle (Thomas Jane) and Howard Saint (John Travolta). We’ve got to sit through a sequence where Castle is pretending to be a German arms dealer in a bust that goes wonky and ends with the death of one of Saint’s twenty-something sons. We need this scene to establish that this is Castle’s last assignment as an undercover FBI agent, and to give Saint a reason to have Castle’s family murdered, but only after Saint has to identify his son and go to the funeral and ask his goons to get him information and … deep breath … decide to kill Castle until his wife (Laura Harring) says she wants Castle’s entire family killed. That means we’re not just talking Castle’s wife (Samantha Mathis) and son, but his dad (Roy Scheider), his mom, his in-laws, and a whole bunch of other people who are nameless and faceless and simply here to be gunned down. Which they are, in another elongated sequence that has Saint’s men, led by his right-hand man Quentin Glass (Will Patton) kill everyone. Then there’s a chase sequence in which Castle’s wife and son try to get away from Saint’s men, and Frank gets on a bike, and then his wife and son get run over and he gets shot and then punched and then tossed off the pier and then shot again and blown up and … another deep breath … then he washes up on shore and is rescued and gets a crutch and goes back for his dad’s guns which will not play a role in the film whatsoever and tosses his crutch away and heads back to Tampa for some revenge.
Seriously? We need all that just to get to the Punisher killing mobsters? Why? The 1989 Dolph Lundgren-starring PUNISHER film didn’t need that, so why does this movie need all that?
I think it’s because this PUNISHER film is a little ashamed of who the Punisher is and what he’s doing.
There’s several occasions in the film where the filmmakers try to soften the blow. I think they thought we needed all of that set-up so we’d be on Frank’s side when he started killing bad guys.
Well, I don’t. I don’t want to speak for you because that would be rude.
Another problem with this prolonged origin sequence is that Frank is declared dead and then comes back and tells everyone, “I’m alive!” He seriously shows up at the police station and accuses two high-ranking police officers of not making an arrest in the murder of his entire family. Why? Why have this scene? These two characters are never seen from again, so the most obvious reason seems to be that the filmmakers think we need to know that the cops aren’t doing their job, so Frank is even more justified to go on a murderous killing spree. It would be one thing if we were seeing this because Frank was unsure of what he was doing, but he’s not. He knows and we know and even Saint knows that Frank Castle is going to try and kill every single person involved with the Saints.
This elongated origin also mucks up Frank’s living situation. Frank moves into a run-down apartment building that has three other tenants: Joan (Rebecca Romijn), Bumpo (John Pinette), and Spacker Dave (Ben Foster). All three of the existing tenants live their life out of the mainstream, but they’ve managed to put together a nice little family unit here, and Frank’s arrival disrupts that. They aren’t hostile to him, however, but curious, as one usually is when a new neighbor moves in next door. They try to domesticate Frank (especially after he beats up Joan’s abusive ex) and while the scenes themselves are well-written and well-acted, they don’t strike me with much emotion, and that’s because those scenes would work infinitely better with the Lundgren Punisher. The Jane Punisher doesn’t really feel all that disaffected with life; he’s just a guy out for revenge (even if he says he isn’t). The Jane Punisher isn’t unstable, no matter how many shots we get of him sucking down Wild Turkey.
Both the origin and the apartment sequences work on their own, but I don’t think they work very well together.
There’s all kinds of plot holes and plot contrivances here but they’re not offensively present. They’re here mostly to allow both halves of the film to co-exist. The filmmakers could spend more time with the revenge plot, but it’s clear they’ve chosen to over-simplify that plot in order to over-complicate the revenge itself, giving quick glimpses of Frank spying on the Saints and making things in order to pull off a twisted revenge that gets Saint to kill both his wife and Quentin. We don’t get to see much of that planning because Saint sends two different contract killers after Castle, one of whom plays a guitar and the other who looks like a crewman from the Nautilus. The first battle isn’t very good, but the second is, as Castle and the Russian (Kevin Nash) destroy Frank’s apartment in a thunderous brawl.
When it comes time for the final act and the over-complicated plan to go into effect, Frank gets Saint to do most of his dirty work, and then puts a bomb on a weight so Saint’s one remaining son ends up killing himself. The only man that Castle kills (because some flunkies) is Saint himself, and then he does it by tying Saint to the back of a car and setting off bombs that leave the Punisher’s logo burning brightly in the parking lot.
Why? Castle has plenty of chances to kill all of these people but he waits and waits and waits and does something theatrical because that makes for a better film, I guess. Pre-Punisher Frank is given to a bit of theatrics with his undercover work but it’s a long jump from dying your hair blonde and speaking in a funny accident to rigging enough explosives in a parking lot to create the Punisher logo. That’s what I mean about over-complicating the revenge.
When I start thinking of all this, I start having less fun with the movie, and that’s too bad because when I just watch it I do like this film quite a bit. Tom Jane is the best Punisher we’ve seen and it’s a shame that the film was hampered with a smaller-than-usual budget for a movie like this. That doesn’t excuse the burps in the script, but it does suggest more could have been done to take advantage of two great performances from Jane and Travolta. Likewise, the three misfits are all solid and Rebecca Romijn is surprisingly good ringing some emotion out of Joan’s predicament.
I like THE PUNISHER. It’s not the smartest of all the Marvel films, but the performances are good and the action scenes are decent. Mostly, though, it’s Jane’s intelligent, focused, somewhat theatrical conception and execution of Frank Castle that keeps bringing me back.